Beer Experiments: Smoking Hops

Recently, Ben Woodward (of Haw River Farmhouse Ales) and I had been discussing whether or not it would be possible to brew a smoked beer without any smoked malt, but instead using only smoked hops.  Would we be able to maintain the flavor and aroma of the hops, and also get some smokiness out of them?  Would the smokiness last, or would it fade away?

After some research on the web, it didn’t seem like there was much information about this.  This led us to believe that it was either a stupid idea and there was a reason no one was writing about it, or it was just so crazy that no one had done it yet, so no one knew if it would work.

So, we figured we would give it a shot and brew up a Smoked Hop IPA!

smoking hops

We were worried about a few things in particular, the most of which was mishandling the hops, introducing a lot of oxygen, which would result in a blue cheese flavored beer.  If you’ve ever had a really hoppy IPA, you’ve probably noticed a little cheese flavor, and that flavor is only intensified if the hops are subjected to extra oxygen before they’re added to the beer.  And we were going to throw them on a grill and smoke them!

Our other concern was maintaining the essential oils and flavor of the actual hops.  We were going to use the smoked hops towards the end of the boil, and we not only wanted it to impart a smoky flavor on the beer, but we also wanted a fresh wet-hop flavor and aroma as well.  And heating them up and smoking them seems somewhat not-conducive to this.

We had a fresh pound of wet cascade hops from Piedmont Hops so we threw them on the grill and smoked it over some applewood, trying to keep the temperature down below 140 F or so.  Using wet hops was key because the smoking basically just speed up the drying process and introduced the smoke flavor to the hops.  It also would lessen our concern about oxygen intake because the hops were still fresh and hadn’t been sitting in an oast drying or shipped to and from a factory.

We wanted to keep the temperature down while smoking to avoid scorching the hops, and to keep from drying them too quickly and burning off the “hoppy” flavor and aroma.  If you have the means, cold-smoking the hops may be an even better option.  We just didn’t have the equipment for that.

The recipe we used was a fairly straightforward IPA recipe, roughly 80% US 2-row, 15% crystal/caramel malt, and 5% carapils, with about 50 IBUs of hops.  We used regular cascade hops for bittering, and added some amarillo and cascade later in the boil for flavor and aroma, and then tossed in the smoked hops at flameout to add in the smokiness.

The beer fermented with a clean American Ale yeast for a couple of weeks before we carbonated it (in an oak cask, producing a smoked and oaked IPA!).  When we racked it out of the carboy, we considered adding additional smoked hops, but luckily the smoke flavor had maintained through the fermentation, so instead, we just dry hopped it with some whole cone Amarillo hops in the cask.

oak cask

Once the beer was carbonated, we served it at the BrewDurham festival, and (somewhat to our surprise) there was no cheesy off-flavors, the smokiness came through subtly but was there, and we also maintained a nice hoppy flavor.  The experiment was a success.

If we were to do it again, we would probably tweak the recipe slightly and carbonate in a keg to achieve a more highly carbonated beer (more like an IPA should be), but the smoked hops provided exactly what we were looking for and we feel that we proved that you can brew a “smoked” beer without using a single ounce of smoked malt.

Just keep in mind that if you try this, you should definitely be mindful of the temperature you smoke at and you should only use wet hops.  Actually, I don’t know that this wouldn’t work with dry hops, but I think the reason we were able to escape without experiencing the consequences that usually come along with mishandling hops was because the hops were fresh, local wet hops.

I am interested to hear if anyone else has tried this, or if you get inspired and do give it a shot, please let me know how it turns out.  I would love to hear about others experiences with smoked hops!